Working with Words: Melissa Cranenburgh
Melissa Cranenburgh is associate editor of The Big Issue Australia - and a Melbourne-based writer, editor and broadcaster with particular interest in books and bike riding. She regularly hosts The Reading Room book segment on Triple R’s The Grapevine. and her work has featured on ABC’s Radio National and in The Big Issue, the Sydney Morning Herald and countless bike riding magazines.
We walked to Melissa about the pleasures of editing, hanging out with Big Issue vendors and why writers should grab opportunities to hone their craft wherever they can.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Okay. Pretty sure it was a … poem. Yep. That’s right. I’d written some Emily Dickinson-inspired thing under duress as a class exercise in Year 8 … or was it 9? Anyway. My English teacher, despite my reluctance, organised to have it published in the school magazine. Totally cringeworthy.
What’s the best part of your job?
Well … I get to work with words for a living. My inner 12-year-old book-nerd self is still amazed that this is what I get to do. All. The. Time. And, I have to say. I really love editing. Helping to tweak and smooth a piece of writing in a way that is (hopefully) true to the writer’s intention is a real pleasure. It also helps that I work with a truly lovely group of people, we have crazily flexible conditions and we can dress as daggily as we like. Not to mention getting to hang out with Big Issue vendors. A constant reminder of what really matters. People.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I guess sometimes it can feel a little samey working on a fortnightly cycle. We do liven it up with different content. But sometimes there’s a sense of…okay, deadline over. Now, guess we’ll just do it all over again. But I’m not complaining: it’s a pretty great job.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?
Honestly? A few years back I got nominated for an editing award. Which I didn’t win. But the thing that really made it significant was that nominated editors were picked by freelance writers who thought they did an okay job. Considering that editors are often seen as picky souls who slash and burn precious words, it was really lovely to get that vote of confidence from writers I’ve worked with. (Thanks, whoever you are.)
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?
Best advice about editing: don’t be too interventionist. The best editing is a subtle craft. Writers should feel like the piece is just the best version of their writing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
People have bizarre notions of who Big Issue vendors are. To frame it simply, they are just people who – whether through disability or any other long-term disadvantage – have found selling our magazine a viable way of earning enough money to help pay the bills, buy a decent lunch or just ameliorate life with a few small luxuries. Some people may be socially isolated and want some means of reconnecting with society. Which can be tough if you’ve been living on the streets or don’t have a regular job. And the magazine they sell? It’s a truly independent magazine and a pretty good read.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t think there’s much else I could do … Um. I guess I’d be unemployed.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Absolutely! Good writing is a craft and a discipline, as well as an art. I guess the issue is that when everyone is exposed to the same types of writing, and don’t define their own voices, there can be a kind of … homogenisation. It’s important to learn from others to a certain extent, and then carve out something that reflects your own unique perspective.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?
Read. A lot. And all types of writing. Write as much as you can. It can help to study writing or editing. It not only gives you a craft and discipline, it can give you access to people in the industry. Having said that, there are many excellent writers and editors who have learned their craft on the job by just … doing. Volunteer. Grab opportunities to hone your craft whenever you can. And surround yourself with people who can support you in your writing life. It can be a lonely one, so that will help.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I now have zero impulse control when it comes to ebooks. If I know I can download a title straight away, and I haven’t totally blown my book budget, I find it almost impossible to resist. But I love bricks and mortar bookstores. And the chance to chat with bookshop staff who really know their stuff. Plus the papery beasts will always have a visceral claim on me. The weightiness of them. The new book feel and smell … it evokes a deep pleasure.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
So many characters. But to narrow it down to one? I read Pride and Prejudice about a million times when I was in my early teens. And I particularly loved Elizabeth Bennet’s takedown of Darcy when he delivers his incredibly backhanded proposal. While Bennet is a creature of her times, the strong-minded woman beneath the Empire-line dress feels like an old friend. What would we talk about? Well, I’d just love to know what she’s reading at the moment.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The most significant? Wow. I really feel like In Cold Blood totally reframed the notion of journalism for me when I was in my late teens. For me, fiction has always been the best truth drug. Delivering epiphanies, reorganising your brain. Capote’s non-fiction ‘novel’ used the same descriptive techniques to achieve that end. I guess the morality of how he did that is certainly something I’ve pondered more as I got older. But, at the time, it floored me.
Another book that rates a mention is Jennie by Paul Gallico. My favourite book as a kid. In it, a young boy ‘becomes’ a cat. At the time I marvelled at how Gallico could know what a cat was thinking. More than anything else, showed me at a formative age how words could make imagined universes truly real.